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Sparks: Kimono My House - Album Of The Week Club review

Ron and Russell Mael have maintained a tireless forward momentum across some of rock’s most ingenious albums. Kimono My House was their third

Sparks - Kimono My House album sleeve
(Image: © Island Records)
Sparks - Kimono My House

Sparks - Kimono My House album sleeve

(Image credit: Island Records)

This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us
Amateur Hour
Falling in Love with Myself Again
Here in HeaveThank God It's Not Christmas
Hasta Mañana, Monsieur
Talent Is an Asset
Complaints
In My Family
Equator

Half a century on from their debut album, Sparks continue to baffle and bewilder like no force in musical history, but it was 1974's Kimono My House that carried This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us into the nation’s living rooms, radios and hearts.

With an image contrived from purest eccentricity, Sparks were a musical anomaly but also ideal constituents for the glam rock collective. LA brothers Russell and Ron Mael fashioned a bubbly and camp musical style not entirely dissimilar to that of Roxy Music, but it was Sparks’ unconventional image that truly captured the national imagination. 

"The vocals [on This Town...] sound so stylised because I wrote it without any regard for vocals and Russell had to adapt," Ron Mael told The Guardian. "We were shocked when the record company thought it was a single, but doing Top Of The Pops had a tremendous effect. Suddenly there were screaming girls. We recorded it during the energy crisis and we were told that because of the vinyl shortage it might never come out."

While vocalist Russell vamped for his life with cherubic curls and a daunting falsetto, elder brother Ron played a quizzical Hitler on keyboards. This Town... and Amateur Hour became glam staples and, incredibly, they’re still at it. Still releasing albums. Still as strange and as adventurous as they ever were. 

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in May 1974

  • Quo - Status Quo
  • Preservation Act 2 - The Kinks
  • Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Rick Wakeman
  • Too Much Too Soon - New York Dolls
  • Monkey Grip - Bill Wyman
  • Sense of Direction - Climax Blues Band
  • Diamond Dogs - David Bowie
  • The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories - Kevin Ayers
  • In for the Kill - Budgie
  • Lotus - Santana
  • The Night the Light Went On in Long Beach - Electric Light Orchestra
  • Paradise and Lunch - Ry Cooder
  • Phenomenon - UFO
  • School Punks - Brownsville Station
  • Sheet Music - 10cc
  • Shock Treatment - Edgar Winter
  • Unrest - Henry Cow

What they said...

"The already annoying chirping yodels of singer Russell Mael become a disappointing stab at intelligible vocals, sadly disguising the fact that Ron Mael is a composer with both a unique (if slightly warped) perspective and a volatile sense of humour. With more intelligible vocals Kimono My House would make a great conversation piece, but, as is, only its lyric sheet bears attention." (Rolling Stone

"The Maels spruce up a sleazy Sunset Strip with a bevy of Broadway-worthy performances here: as the band expertly revs up the glam rock-meets-Andrew Lloyd Webber backdrops, Russell sends things into space with his operatic vocals and ever-clever lyrics." (AllMusic)

"The album’s music is quirky; deliberately so. Russell sings high notes and falsetto throughout to keep up with Ron’s melodies, which are shaped from his piano’s high keys. But Russell’s voice is remarkably pliant. Thank God It’s Not Christmas is his best vocal performance here, sounding like a louche bon-vivant to rival Bryan Ferry." (No Ripchord)

What you said...

Uli Hassinger: Man, this is crazy shit. I've never heard a single song by them, so diving into their music was kind of a special experience. Like Frank Zappa they built their own musical cosmos. The weird vocals, the groundbreaking keys, the twisted melodies were challenging. But I have to say it was worthwhile listening and somehow I was fascinated by their music. To pick out a song is nearly impossible because I see the album as a whole, as an artwork. The Mael brothers are weirdos and themselves an artwork. I have to gather some information about them.

It's not unlikely that I will dive deeper into their musical cosmos. I've already ordered Propaganda and even their recent releases should be worth listening.

Kathy Kerr Gonzalez: I've never heard Sparks before, despite being a big glam fan, but I suppose I always focused on the giants: Bowie, Mott, Roxy, maybe you could count T Rex and early Queen in there. So my first reaction was naturally to find all the places these guys are not those other acts: damn, Mick Ronson could have gone to town on this album; I wish Andy Mackay had played an actual saxophone on Equator rather than that dopey mellotron; this could really use Sue and Sunny on backing vocals; and of course, Russell Mael is no.... Bowie, or Bryan Ferry, or Ian Hunter, or Freddie. 

But I kept going back to it, and the more times I listened to it, the more I thought, "If I had to play the 'this sounds-like' game, I'd actually pick Adam and the Ants. Stand And Deliver totally could have been on this album. So maybe KMH should be thought of less as a glam album and more a bridge between glam and new wave - a bridge over the raging punk river. 

And I kept going back to it. So much so that I thought, whatever happened to these guys? And I felt compelled to look up where they went – and what a journey indeed – it makes this album even less of a glam album. Calling Sparks glam is about as accurate as calling Brian Eno a glam artist because of his time in Roxy Music. What I love about this album is an underlying theory of art that Sparks have consistently carried with them: art is there to say something, to challenge you a bit, push and pull, force you to sit up and pay attention. 

You know what else pushes back? Abbey Road. Aladdin Sane. Don't get me wrong, we're not quite at that level, here - nor is all challenging music classic. But it comes back to the question of what is the point of art. I'm still playing and processing this album - there is always something new to hear in it. And I am looking forward to getting caught up on the rest of their music.

Roland Bearne: I have encountered Sparks on and off over the years. A friend at school had No.1 In Heaven, and whilst I thought it quite cool, I was never moved to actually buy it. I was doing some filming once on a tight schedule and the First Assistant Director insisted on playing Beat The clock at everyone: makeup, costume, actors trying to get ready... very annoying, and I decided that Sparks were just an annoyance! 

So kicking off with This Town... it's one of those absolutely legendary tracks which seeps into your consciousness whether you ever sought it out or not... and it is quite brilliant, totally original. Next up a snorty laugh (while I was running) when they rhymed "Violin" with "Yehudi Menuhin". So then we crack straight on with... err, hang on a mo'... a waltz? I knew this was going to be a fun ride. And so it proved to be. 

Endless originality, superb musicianship and invention in all departments. Unique keyboard textures, quirky time signatures, great bass lines, splashes of 70's glam and more in this great bubbling cauldron of creativity. I think it would be fair to say these guys were way ahead of the crowd here. The only element which ended up wearing a bit thin is Russell's decision to sing almost entirely in falsetto; a minor gripe, as this is a remarkable melange of East Village art collective, rock band, punk observation and trippy weirdness. Glad it came up as I probably wouldn't have bothered the Sparks again! Gotta beat the clock! This is fab!

Bill Griffin: I remember watching these guys on TV at 13 when this came out and had no trouble conjuring up that image again while listening. Maybe Rick Neilson was watching too as Cheap Trick borrowed that image for themselves.

I like it, definitely more than I thought I would. Of course, I will always love the sound of a Rickenbacker, and Fisher's guitar is pretty good too. The whole band is good.

I know the first two tracks and probably a few of the others, even if I haven't heard them since 1974. Sparks probably would have worked as an opening act for Queen back then. I think I'll be adding it to my collection.

Kevin Miller: This one is unlistenable for me. I tried for two songs, but the vocals just put me off. I was never a Siouxsie fan, and that’s what this reminds me of.

Gilbert Terpstra: Such a great record. Got it as a kid. Only nine years old. Still have it, still play it. Good songs, the recording itself could be better but a fantastic band they had!

Happs Richards: I remember being pretty unnerved by the video of This Town... when I was a kid, couldn’t work out if the dude with the glasses was in the band or the child catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

That said, I thought it was time I gave Sparks a bit of a go, and sadly after the initial enthusiasm wore off (by about track five) it all felt a bit contrived to be different. Not one for me, I’m afraid.

Brian Carr: Bummer. Another album selection that is musically and sonically interesting to me but absolutely sunk by atrocious vocals. I got through it once but can’t envision it growing on me in the slightest.

Mike Canoe: The genesis of Kimono My House is a great story: the Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, ditch their old band in L.A. and head to London, where they are supplied by their sympathetic benefactor with an amazing new band and producer, become stars, so much that resulting "Sparksmania" often found singer Russell Mael with his clothes ripped off and/or his hair ripped out.

I have appreciated Sparks for a while through their New Music For Amnesiacs anthology. Yes, Russell Mael's falsetto would impress Sweet's Steve Priest or Queen's Roger Taylor, and his faux-French accent can compete with that of Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry, but his greatest strength is his ability to unironically sell his brother Ron's purposely inane lyrics. Ron Mael's greatest strength is marrying these lyrics to technicolor cabaret pop songs juked along by his bouncy keyboard riffs.

Sometimes the songs are there to tell little lyrical tragicomedies like the jilted lover whose girl doesn't show up for their rendezvous in Equator. Or Amateur Hour, which humorously relates the awkwardness of a young man's first sexual (in)experience.

More often the lyrics sound great because the music sounds great and it doesn't matter if they don't make a lot of sense; like the waltzing Falling In Love With Myself Again, the cheery Albert Einstein ode Talent Is An Asset, the frenetic Complaints, or barroom lament, Thank God It's Not Christmas.

And then there's the smash hit that combines the two styles, This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us.

The assembled band is outstanding, especially guitarist Adrian Fisher whose transcendent solos remind me of Roxy's Phil Manzanera or Be Bop Deluxe's Bill Nelson. Muff (older brother of Steve) Winwood's production adds sonic muscle to Ron's pop confections.

After learning about the perils of the so-called "Sparksmania," I picked up on an (unintentional) bit of humour in the intro to the live version of Amateur Hour that closes out the 21st Century Edition: A heavily accented (of course) Russell tells the audience they are going to play one more but pleads, "for everyone's safety, I think we should have a little restraint in the hall, OK?"

I know his older brother Ron was sitting behind his keyboard, trademark scowl firmly in place under his toothbrush moustache.

Paul Flewitt: Great album. Full of campy quirkiness, fun pop and something bordering on 30's cabaret. You have to love Sparks' uniqueness.

Plamen Agov: Completely unknown group for me. Now, listening to the album Kimono My House, I’m not saying it is so bad but somehow the music is not attractive. I guess it was mostly the colourful, extravagant album cover art that grabbed the attention of the youngsters of the 70’s.

Alex Hayes: To be honest, this was an album that I had to approach from the perspective of a relative novice. Apart from the hit single This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, which I must say easily stands out as the best track on offer here, I was completely unfamiliar with the music of Sparks prior to this. Frankly, this isn't a band whose music I'd have ever felt the impetus to explore under my own steam. That's not to say that I didn't appreciate Kimono My House though. Although eccentric, I found the songs here to be lyrically and sonically intelligent enough to sustain my interest throughout.

Going off prior comments, I felt sure that I would struggle with the lead vocals here. They weren't as uncomfortable for me as I both feared and expected in the main though. Only on the closing stages of the final track, Equator, did those distinctive falsetto tones start to grate on me. My biggest gripe with the album is that the other tracks here fail to live up to that terrific opener. I find categorising this album difficult, which should probably be taken as a compliment. Esoteric art pop/rock is probably the best that I can manage. The closest musical comparison that I can make here would be something like Roxy Music maybe? Another band that I'm not as familiar with as I possibly should be.

This is an album and band that I highly doubt I'll make any special effort to return to in the future, but it was an interesting enough dive into the idiosyncratic world of the Mael brothers.

Marco LG: In 1996 Heavens Gate, a German power metal band, recorded a cover of This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us. It was a humorous closer for an album, Planet E, tackling rather serious themes like climate change. In 2002 Theory In Practice, a Swedish death metal band, did the same in their album Colonizing The Sun. Before this week I was also very familiar with Amateur Hour, but despite trying I still cannot figure out why: I cannot find any cover versions in my collection and I was merely a toddler when it came out as a single.

Once again this club has unearthed an album that clearly influenced several of my favourite bands, an album that should have been in my listening queue, if not directly in my wish list, already ages ago. I happen to like almost everything about it: the quirky humour, the “Frank Zappa plays T. Rex” musical attitude, the singing almost constantly in falsetto, those beautiful bass lines (halfway between Lemmy and Chris Squire), and those guitar solos seemingly coming from nowhere.

The Mael brothers kept reinventing themselves, and went on to release more than 20 albums after this, often evolving their sound. Listening to the subsequent effort, Propaganda, does indeed show signs of evolution, but towards the kind of pop I was never interested in. 

In December 2014 Kimono My House was performed in its entirety accompanied by an orchestra. As with many other things, the recording is easily found on the internet: but to my ears it sucks! The main problem with that performance is that it lacks a band; yes, there is an orchestra but the rock instrumentation is completely absent.

Bassist Martin Gordon wrote in a 2014 blog post: “The Kimono My House recording, unlike its predecessors and successors, is the product of a process; and there were five people involved in it.” As such this album would be an accident, the product of a fortuitous meeting of five creative minds, something unique to be cherished on its own. From what I have heard this week, it certainly seems like so for me.

In conclusion: Kimono My House is a marvellous album which I will add presently to my collection. It features a collection of songs that never failed all week to put a smile on my face and make me want to dance, and for that reason it will score a 10 from me.

John Davidson: I remember first hearing the main single This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us on Top Of The Pops (the premiere, and sometimes only, UK TV music show in the 1970s), and if you’d asked me I’d have said this was from 1977 or 1978 rather than 1974. It feels like it is part of the new wave movement of bands like Talking Heads, The Tubes and Lene Lovich, but none of those bands started until 1975 and didn’t trouble the charts until 1977.

The closest style of band I can think of for comparison is the glam-sprinkled art rock of Roxy Music and Steve Harley’s Cockney Rebel.

Perhaps because it is quirky and a bit unconventional it does have a timelessness to it… but sadly that only takes me so far. Even the nostalgia element is mixed in with other preferences. At that age I liked the glam stomp chants of Suzi Quatro, Slade and the Sweet rather than the sophisticated sleaze of Roxy Music or the artful weirdness of David Bowie and Be-Bop Deluxe (and I hadn’t yet discovered the joys of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin).

I’ve heard the main single often enough in the last 45+ years that I don’t really need to hear it again and there are no hidden gems of ‘classic rock’ to draw me in. That said, there are some nice Rickenbacker bass licks and some decent guitar work lurking behind the quirky melodies and falsetto vocals.

The tracks Here In Heaven and Hasta Manan, Monsieur probably benefit most from the musicality of the supporting cast behind the Mael brothers singing/song-writing partnership.

As for the rest of the album, I confess to skipping a number of tracks after a couple of minutes. Not because the band lack talent but because for the most part the songs just don’t hit my spot. 4/10.

Gary Claydon: I first bought Kimono My House shortly after release and purely because of This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both of Us. I was about 14 and, the opening track excepted, I hated it. I guess I just wasn't ready for Sparks at that time. A handful of years later and with my musical horizons suitably broadened, I revisited the album and I loved it. It's one of those albums that rewards repeated listening with numerous "I never noticed that before" moments.

The aforementioned This Town... is, of course, instantly recognisable. Personally, I've never grown tired of it despite it receiving excessive airplay down the years. It's mix of Glam/Art/Hard rock and proto-punk/new wave, all underpinned by the Mael brothers' pure pop sensibilities, is just superb. It also encapsulates the things I like most about Sparks. Musically and lyrically it's brilliant (I'll come back to the lyrics) and how many bands do you know who have touched as many musical bases as Sparks have? 

I hate this seemingly endless need many people have to pigeonhole every band/artist. Well, I defy anybody to pigeonhole Sparks and you gotta love em for that. As for the lyrics, the witty and evocative wordplay has become as much of a trademark as Russell's falsetto or Ron's moustache. "Tacky Tigers"? Amateur Hour, a tale of fumbling teenage sex and the pitfalls of puberty, provides more examples: "Girls grow tops to go topless in" and "I could start a song a tenor and then end as bass". And who else could use 'Yehudi Menuhin' as a song lyric and make it work? Wonderful stuff.

The opening bars of Falling In Love With Myself Again suggest a Bond movie theme song but it quickly becomes a bierkeller singalong - I've always thought it should have an oompah band backing it. Hasta Manana Monsieur is another lyrical delight while the role-reversed Romeo And Juliet-style theme of Here In Heaven has parts in the verses which always make me think of early Kate Bush. If you need further proof that here is band who's song-writing themes are far removed from the rock norm, then how about the parents of Albert Einstein extolling the virtues of their young son on Talent Is An Asset, complete with some nicely layered vocals. It's worth pointing out just how good the band that the brothers had assembled was. Andy Fisher with some neat guitar work and a solid rhythm section in Martin Gordon and the wonderfully named Dinky Diamond.

The album does tail off a little towards the end but, overall, Kimono My House is a real box of delights. I can see why some people dislike Sparks. Russell's vocals are not that conducive to prolonged listening sessions and the brothers' 'good cop - bad cop' on stage shtick might come across as a little contrived. I think a fellow reviewer said he thought on KMH they were trying too hard to be different, but that's the thing. Sparks weren't trying to be different. They simply were different.

And one last thing, they are responsible for the greatest album title ever. Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Brilliant.

Final Score: 6.00⁄10 (88 votes cast, with a total score of 528)

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